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Home Trip Reports SOTA SOTA Report: Sierra Solo and Mazourka

SOTA Report: Sierra Solo and Mazourka

Under 13 lbs… This is going to be a nice pack weight, I said to myself Thursday night as I weighed-in my new 15L ultralight pack, stuffed with the bare necessities for a weekend in the mountains, along with some extra items for fun. About a year ago, I started this game called “Summits On The Air” or “SOTA” which draws amateur radio enthusiasts to operate from mountain tops in order to gather points. I had a grand plan of activating seven SOTA summits to the West of Onion Valley in the Eastern Sierra. It would require two days of effort and a daunting amount of off-trail hiking and scrambling, but I was ready. Stuffed in my pack was

a light bivy sack, down sleeping bag, minimalist inflatable sleeping pad and pillow, a couple of clothing items for warmth (gloves, cap, neck gaiter, merino sleeves, and a wind-breaker), miscellaneous essentials, food (energy bars, gels, cheezits, and a burrito), a camera, and of course radio equipment. Joining me on this trip was the LNR FX-4, End-Fedz Trail Friendly antenna, Cabelas 14’ graphite pole, and a Yaesu VX-3R with a double-extended zepp wire antenna for VHF.

 

UL Pack

An early morning to work on Friday had me high-tailing it out of the office just after 1pm in hopes that I’d beat the traffic out of town. My progress slowed through Riverside and San Bernardino, but even with a stop for dinner and permit pick-up in Lone Pine, I arrived at the Onion Valley parking area by 7:30pm. I had just a short amount of daylight left to start my climb to Mt Gould where I had planned to bivy for the night. Climbing the overgrown Golden Trout Lakes trail, University Peak lit up beautifully in the last of the day’s light.

University Peak

Soon I was traveling by headlamp, trying to follow the meager trail up to the Golden Trout Lakes. I lost the trail only 1.5mi in, finding it again for a short while around mile 1.75, only to lose it again for good shortly after. Arriving at the upper-most Golden Trout Lake, I refilled water bottles and had to decide which side of the lake to attempt to transit. Both sides are bounded by steep granite and with no moon, it was impossible to tell which would be easiest, or even whether or not both would be passible. I chose the South shore and lucked out.

Past the lake, the pitch steepened sharply as I climbed large talus up to the ridgeline North of Gould. Without being able to see beyond the reach of my headlamp, I relied on the topo map and photos I had studied of the route up the pass. Once again I lucked out and encountered nothing harder than loose Class 2 terrain to reach the ridge. An easy jaunt up the ridgeline brought me to the summit area where I set up my antenna and gazed down into Bullfrog Meadow at the lights of backpackers camped a couple-thousand feet below before rolling out my bivy in a little nook between larger chunks of talus.

The bivy site wasn’t level, or really very comfortable, but it was the best I could find that close to the summit. By the time I crawled into the sleeping bag, it was 10:30pm.  I set my alarm for 5:50am to roust me from my warm cocoon in time for my planned 6am SOTA activation.

Mt Gould summit in the morning light

I woke noticing the sky was growing light just before my alarm went off. The condensation on my bivy sack had frozen into a crystalline layer, and it was tempting to just stay in my warm bag. Though I wanted to sleep more, I’d had enough of my uncomfortable bivy site and wanted to get started as soon as possible to maximize my activations for the day. Cell reception from Mt Gould (W6/SS-066) is good and I could easily self-spot on sotawatch.org via text message, and confirm it by loading the page. I started on 40m having to move up from my planned frequency slightly. I called CQ there for quite some time with no takers. Moving up to 20m, I self-spotted once again and called and called, still with no contacts. I moved back to 40m with no luck, then back to 20m to finally start making contacts. Once they started, I quickly logged enough contacts for the first SOTA activation of Mt Gould. Once the chasers stopped calling, I set up the VHF antenna and called on 146.52 with no responses before packing up to move on to Mt Rixford.

TimeCallBandMode
13:22z AC0A 14MHz SSB
13:53z AC1Z 14MHz SSB
13:54z NE4TN 14MHz SSB
13:55z AE4FZ 14MHz SSB
13:57z K2JB 14MHz SSB

Mt Gould  (13,005')- W6/SS-066 Log

The activation had taken me an 1hr 20min which was significantly longer than I had hoped. I was already doubting my chances at reaching  all five peaks I had planned for the day. To accomplish that, I needed activations to be quick. This one was not, even with the ability to self-spot which I knew I would lose on the consecutive summits.

Gould to Rixford traverse

With my 13lb pack on my shoulders once again, I was moving on toward Mt Rixford (W6/SS-087), plotting my route as I went. Staying on the ridgeline proved too difficult, and I was forced to drop down on the South side of the ridge to more passable terrain. At one point, I was forced to make a decision to either drop a few hundred extra feet or attempt to traverse a sort-of scree ledge system. I noticed many sets of bighorn sheep tracks along the ledge system, so I thought “it can’t be that bad, right?”

Looking back at the "Bighorn Sheep" traverse toward Mt Gould

Fortunately it was also suitable for this two-legged mountain goat, and I was soon looking up at the final talus climb to Mt Rixford. The rock there was more stable and solid, and easier climbing despite the elevation gain and already high altitude. By 8:35 AM, I was on the summit of Mt Rixford, setting up the end-fed half-wave antenna once again. I was pleased with my travel time of 1hr 15min, but I would need a quick activation here to get me back on schedule.

Activating Mt Rixford (W6/SS-087)

Cell reception at Mt Rixford was minimal at best, and even though my phone’s signal meter would waver between one and three bars, I was unable to get a text message out to self-spot. Once again I tried 40m first with no luck before moving to 20m. Scanning the band, I found a weak station completing a contact that I thought might be a SOTA station he indicated in the QSO that he was mountaintop portable and running 20 watts. It took some effort for him to copy the complete exchange (he gave me a 3-1 signal report), but the result was a successful summit-to-summit contact to AE7AP on W7M/HB-060 in Montana.

Unfortunately the additional contacts I needed didn’t come easily. Between calling CQ on the 40m and 20m bands, and searching for other stations looking for contacts, I periodically called CQ on 2m, but to no avail. Finally I managed three contacts in succession on 146.52.

TimeCallBandMode
16:47z AE7AP 14MHz SSB
17:22z KJ6SER 144MHz FM
17:23z K6JNX 144MHz FM
17:24z WB6VAF 144MHz FM

Mt Rixford (12,887') - W6/SS-087 Log

Once again, I packed up and saddled up my pack. This activation had taken 2 hours and 25min - now I was way behind schedule. I knew Mt Cotter was no longer an option and figured Mt Gardiner depended on the speed of the next activation. First I had to get there.

One more sub-peak sat between me and the John Muir trail. A tarn just South of Glenn Pass would be my next water fill-up and I was running low, carrying only about 40oz at a time. The course I plotted across to the next peaklet took me to a saddle South of the peak that I hoped would allow me to skirt around it and avoid unnecessary climbing that I knew I would have to give up on the other side. The far side of the saddle turned out to be steep chutes that would have been to dangerous to descend, but fortunately a series of ledges offered a Class 3 line with little elevation gain back to the North to easier talus. The rest of the descent to the tarn was relatively easy.

View from Mt Rixford toward Glenn Pass

With full bottles, I began the traversing climb up to Point 12,592 (per the US FS 2013 topo) identified as W6/SS-119 in the SOTA database, but labeled with elevation 12,565' and shown with the high-point on the wrong summit per the latest topo. The trip from Mt Rixford with the water stop took 2hrs 30min which I was happy with again, but my slow activations were taking a toll on my time.

Once again, I set up my antenna on the high point and tuned to my planned 40m frequency of 7.185MHz. I was so far behind that my 4th alert was lining up with this activation. I made a call asking if the frequency was in use, and almost immediately a familiar callsign came back. It was Dennis (KA6DUH) who was listening for me from the San Diego Mountain Rescue desert training in Anza Borrego. He had listened for me in the morning as well, but heard nothing. This time our QSO was 5-5 in both directions!

Refueling

My spirits lifted with this quick QSO, but that hope soon gave way to the monotony of CQ, CQ, CQ... The 20m band had filled with contesters, and finding a clear frequency was nearly impossible. When I did find one, I was quickly overrun by QRM from stations that couldn't hear my puny signal. With no way to spot, and no luck on 2m or 40m, I managed to make three contacts to contest stations to round out the activation log.

TimeCallBandMode
20:00z KA6DUH 7MHz SSB
20:17z W9RE 14MHz SSB
20:52z K0EU 14MHz SSB
20:55z K3PA 14MHz SSB

Point12,592' - W6/SS-119 Log

 

Activating Point 12,592' - W6/SS-119

My legs were beginning to tire from the climbing, and I was far enough behind schedule at this point that climbing Mt Gardiner didn't seem like a great option. If I encountered another 2hr activation, I would be forced to camp in the area of Gardiner and my trip out on Sunday might take longer than I had hoped. Activating Mazourka Peak in the morning to take advantage of the summer desert bonus points sounded like a better option, saving Gardiner for a combined trip with Mt Cotter and Clarence King (maybe this season?).

Mt Gardiner (left), Mt Cotter (right), and Mt Clarence King (far right)


Looking back toward Mt Rixford and Mt Gould. Glen Pass trail is visible just right of the upper-most lake.

With visions of pizza and beer, I began the 2,000' descent to Charlotte lake where I would refill my water, then climb back to Kearsarge Pass. At the pass, a group of 15-20 JMT hikers had amassed. I chatted with them for a few minutes while I downed the second half of my burrito before starting the brisk hike and jog back to the car. As I left the pass, one of them asked "wait a minute, where's all your stuff?!" I chuckled and explained that I had packed really light for this trip. I didn't tell them that my pack would likely have been less than 10 lbs had it not been for the radio equipment I was carrying.

Kearsarge Pass Party

The trip down to the trailhead went quick, and I arrived back at the car at 6:15 PM, just 22hrs and 45min after I left!

Pizza and beer in Lone Pine filled my belly before heading back North to Mazourka Canyon Rd out of Independence. Just a few miles from the highway, I was forced to slam on my brakes, stopping 30ft before plowing into a LARGE black bull standing dead-center in the middle of my lane, oblivious to the fact that I almost just totaled my car in an accident that likely would have just bruised his shins. This guy was a beast! I drove around and continued on my way... a bit slower.

About 15mi up the canyon, I found a nice pullout to camp in. Though you can drive to the summit of Mazourka peak, I wanted to hike, so I stopped about 2 miles short and planned a route that would involve about a mile of dirt road, then another mile of cross-country up a ridge with a total of about 1,000' of gain. Once again, I set my alarm - this time for 5:15am to give me just enough time to climb to the summit for sunrise. With the relatively clear skies, I expected the views to be amazing.

Sierra Panorama - Pre-sunrise

Let me tell you, they did not disappoint! I arrived at the summit just before 6am with enough time to shoot a bunch of photos and set up my antenna before the first rays of light hit the Sierra. Another round of photos followed.

First Light

The summit of Mazourka is rounded and covered in sparse, low brush, so the views are amazing. Three radio sites are scattered on the summit, one of which holds a HAM repeater that gives excellent coverage of the Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada. It's also linked to a repeater on Silver Peak North of Bishop.

Nice views during the Mazourka Peak activation

 

SOTA Rig: LNR FX-4, Homebrew mini-mic, earbuds, 4Ah Li Ion battery, end-fed 10/20/40 "Trail Friendly" with a link for 17m, and SOTA Logger app for logging and spotting


Despite being able to self-spot with poor, but adequate cell reception, it took over 2hrs to get my first contact. I tried 40m first, then 20m, interspersed with calls on 2m simplex, but got nothing. Finally at 8am, my previously alerted time for Mt Bago, I made a number of contacts on 40m. The band seemed to be doing well with longer-than-usual skip. I switched back to 20m before wrapping up and made two more contacts there.

TimeCallBandMode
15:00z W7RV 7MHz SSB
15:01z NS7P 7MHz SSB
15:01z N7AMA 7MHz SSB
15:04z AA7DK 7MHz SSB
15:15z AC0A 14MHz SSB
15:21z ND0C 14MHz SSB

Mazourka Peak (9,413') - W6/CD-005 Log

I had originally planned to also activate Point 6,965' (W6/ND-077) but after another 2hr 30min activation, I was CQ'd out. Instead, I headed back to Lone Pine for a late breakfast, then aimed South on 395.

I made a deal with myself that I would try to activate Red Hill (W6/ND-283) if the temps were less than 100deg when I got there. Well, it was exactly 100deg when I got there.

Red Hill from the 395 South

Exiting at Fossil Falls, I turned onto the dirt frontage road that heads toward the cinder cone, but a short distance in, encountered an area with deep, soft sand that I wasn't willing to risk getting stuck in. I also wasn't willing to hike the extra 1/2 or 3/4mi to climb the summit in that heat, so I turned around and headed back to San Diego.

Though I fell far short of my original goal of activating seven Sierra summits, I still made four activations for a total of 41 points, had a blast doing it, and even made it back to San Diego in time to enjoy dinner with my better half.